Norfolk Island’s recent experience of the politicisation of the APS

By Chris Nobbs

December 14, 2021

Norfolk Island
Norfolk Island view looking toward Nepean and Philip Islands. (AAP Image/Janelle Miles)

As a commentator on Norfolk Island affairs, I recently claimed that the Australian government is imposing “zombie policies” on Norfolk Island: that is, policies that lack forethought, are inappropriate for a small isolated island, overly bureaucratic and expensive, and undermine social capital. For those on the island, it is a matter of immense dismay and some curiosity as to why the commonwealth should continue to act in such a counterproductive manner despite sustained and consistent opposition from the island population.

Norfolk Island, an external territory under the authority of Australia, 1500km east of the Australian mainland, enjoyed a modicum of self-government over the years following 1979. However, in 2016 this regime was abolished, along with a number of traditional usages, by the Australian government, and sweeping bureaucratic powers passed from island control to the commonwealth and particularly to the (now) Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

One explanation compatible with the observed facts is becoming clear. In the period following the Second World War, Australia was regarded as having a public service second to none within the Westminster tradition of being apolitical, impartial and professional, and able to provide “frank and fearless” advice to ministers. However, this reputation has been in long-term decline particularly since the “new managerialism” took root in the 1980s, and by the first decade of the new century was widely regarded as fact.

The 2018 independent review of the APS reported its unequivocal finding that: “the APS needs a service-wide transformation to achieve better outcomes.” In parallel with this review, an ANZSOG-commissioned survey on how Australian governments needed to respond to technological and societal change reported: Trust in government in Australia is at an all-time low. According to survey data, fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works…. Just 31 per cent of the population say they trust the federal government….  

A major factor in this continuous decline has been identified as the growing politicization of public administration, a trend that has been observed not only in Australia but internationally.

The means by which this politicisation has occurred in Australia have been well-described recently in the columns of The Mandarin by Bernard Keane, who points to: the sacking of departmental secretaries thought to be inadequately receptive to the government’s views; politically-based appointments at senior administrative levels and partisanship in promotions; and the ever-expanding number of ministerial advisors and staff “unaccountable either to the parliament as political appointees, or the public service as bureaucrats”. The trend has been exacerbated by such means as placing executives on fixed-term contracts, and the penchant for politicians to over-ride public service advice when distributing public monies, for example.

In such a milieu, policy is likely to emerge as a melange of reason and unexamined ideology, leading to declining governmental transparency, integrity and accountability. It also has the consequence of degrading the expertise within the APS (Why would professional experts want to hang around as ministerial lackeys?), and the quality of independent advice. As competence in the public service drains away, ministers and departments are reduced to calling in ad hoc advice from expensive private consultancy firms likely to be responsive to ministers’ wishes.

The consequences of such influences, are summarised by ANU experts Dowling and Taflaga as:  poorer policy development, increasing public malfeasance, a lower quality civil service, and democratic disenchantment.

Many governmental faux pas (not to say foul-ups) in recent years have been attributed at least in part to such trends, including the robodebt scandal, the “bureaucratic nightmare” of the National Disability Insurance Scheme rollout, the “car park rorts” affair, the governmental contretemps with the French President and the French Ambassador to Australia.

In its consideration of Norfolk Island, the commonwealth’s approach appears to have been founded on the idea: “Norfolk Island is same as the rest of Australia, therefore A, therefore B, therefore C, and D and E…”, with little thought as to the appropriateness of these individual decisions. Thus, the policy zombieism tag and the finger pointed to politicisation.

Egregious has been the abandonment since 2016 of immigration control between the Australian mainland and the island, leaving the island with loss of control of population numbers, resources and economy, and the disruption of the housing market, and island culture. There is no similar island in the world to which Norfolk may be compared that is without immigration control, and the present commonwealth policy is likely to be disastrous for the island in the long term.

There has also been a glaring failure to accommodate Norfolk Island’s biosecurity needs to ensure ongoing phytosanitary health and agricultural and horticultural opportunities, given the island’s existing very high biosecurity status and the potential value to Australia of protecting it as a biodiversity refuge.

There has been a systemic imperviousness of the commonwealth to accept island-based proposals, a failure to genuinely consult with the island (Why consult when you know the answers already?), and lack of transparency.

Norfolk Island has a long history of commonwealth rejection of island-based initiatives in relation to economic development: the minting of Norfolk Island coinage, exchangeable at full value for Australian currency (1993–94); establishment of an offshore financial/banking centre on Norfolk Island under the aegis of the Australian government (1997, 2010); establishment and location on Norfolk Island of an appropriately structured Australian international shipping register (2013–14); proposal to develop a small-scale offshore commercial fishery in the Norfolk Island exclusive economic zone (2010–14); cultivation of medicinal cannabis (2014, 2015). In 2016, the commonwealth rejected connection of Norfolk Island to the Hawaiki undersea trans-Pacific cable.

Perhaps the most shocking process of all from Norfolk Island’s viewpoint has been that of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories 2014 inquiry into the economic development of Norfolk Island. Here, the commonwealth department’s claim that the Norfolk Island economy from 1979 to 2014 had been a ‘failure’ was based on erroneous analysis and – by any reasonable factual standard – was false; the belief that the Norfolk Island government’s difficulty with financial sustainability was merely a matter of governance – rather than engaging small size and isolation – was a mis-diagnosis; and the claim that the remedy outlined by the committee and subsequently contained in the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Act 2015 was necessary was true only because of the limited alternatives examined. And having refused to take any submissions from the Norfolk Island government or public on governance matters as being beyond their remit, their own report contained almost nothing but.

For those interested in understanding the conduct of the commonwealth government in recent years, its refusal to govern from the perspective of the governed on Norfolk Island provides a case study of wider applicability.


The Pacific Step-up impositions on Norfolk Island mandate mutual respect

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